The Old Country

Alan Bennett
English Touring Theatre
Trafalgar Studios 1

Timothy West and Jean Marsh: photo by Stephen Vaughan

Stephen Unwin's English Touring Theatre is to be congratulated for reviving the first of Alan Bennett's plays about the Cambridge spies, almost thirty years after its debut with Alec Guinness in the role of Hilary, the archetypal exiled Englishman.

For half-an-hour or so, the new country remains unnamed and, as the audience tries to guess its identity, Hilary, a barely disguised version of Kim Philby, eulogises over a country that he has been unable to visit for the past sixteen years.

In his memory, it is recollected as a highly civilised place of hymn singing, cream teas and Harrods hampers. The intervening years enable Bennett to present a pretty subtle dissection that might as easily have been entitled The Decline of England.

Whether life in a book-filled summer dacha just outside Moscow, designed by John Gunter, can compare is a matter for debate. In some ways, Timothy West's Hilary and his wife Bron, played by Jean Marsh, seem happy. There may be a silent audience of KGB agents in the garden but it stretches into an endlessly idyllic forest. Even better, his collection of books, primarily it seems first editions of English classics, has remained intact.

Work is none too strenuous but reality does occasionally intervene, never more so than in the appearance of the grim, young neighbours. Though they are not fully fleshed out, Eric and Olga (Tim Delap and Rebecca Charles) represent the seedy, working-class end of spying. They did not get a coded tip-off extracted from Great Expectations and, instead, spent time in prison prior to being traded for their Russian counterparts.

From obscure clues, the action seemingly takes place in the early 1960s as Hilary's sister and mistress of the platitude, Veronica (played by Susan Tracy) arrives with her dull husband Duff. For a master of irony like Bennett, the appearance of Simon Williams in this part opposite Jean Marsh with whom he worked in Upstairs Downstairs must seem delicious.

Duff lives up or down to his name, a dim but high-flying civil servant who has just received his knighthood, presumably for his only real skill, name-dropping.

The meeting of these two couples after so long allows the playwright to explore contemporary England and compare it with that other country, the past of a generation before. That real upper-class Duff - Cooper - entitled his memoirs Old Men Forget and Hilary is clearly an unwitting subscriber to this maxim.

Not only does he have that the fondest memories of good old Blighty but conveniently fails to remember the deaths, including those of some of his friends, for which he was ultimately responsible as he strove to bring Communism to his home country.

He only begins to squirm when offered the opportunity of repatriation, apparently as welcome to his Russian hosts as his former colleagues in the Foreign Office.

The Old Country nicely combines some interesting political plotting with a portrait of a delusional man whose life has been lived as a lie for as long as he can remember and has a Bennett knack of rambling most amusingly.

Timothy West is touching in this part and receives strong support, particularly from Jean Marsh and Simon Williams. With the attractions of some famous actors and a playwright whose career has been given a new lease of life by The History Boys, the larger of the Trafalgar Studios should remain full throughout the run.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher